You can’t move today without bumping into an article or presentation that warns of the perils of ‘being Ubered’ (a phrase coined by Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Levy, meaning your organisation is at risk of being disrupted, dethroned, or threatened with extinction by more advanced competitors, and that to survive, an organisation must evolve).

The facts pointed out by doom-mongers are stark; very few of the Fortune 500 companies listed in 1955 either still exist, have not gone bankrupt, or have not been merged or acquired. The disruption propaganda has been heard loud and clear in the boardroom1.

In a survey of more than 500 c-suite executives across Europe and the United States, over half (53%) said they are concerned about competition from disruptive businesses.

Two-thirds of c-suite executives believe that 40% of Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist in 10 years time [due] to digital disruption

Retiring Cisco CEO and executive chairman John Chambers had to this to say in his final keynote2:

“40% of businesses in this room, unfortunately, will not exist in a meaningful way in 10 years,” he told the 25,000 attendees, adding that 70% of companies will “attempt” to go digital, but only 30% of those that try it “will be successful.”

“If I’m not making you sweat, I should be,”

Demise through disruption is a marketing message that big technology consulting suits and tool vendors have sold into. The prevailing answer to disruption, promulgated by the big technology consultancies and tool vendors, is to invest in technology. With a bottomless trough, you can see why.

Technology thinking looks to be the easiest path. It may make big technology consulting firms and tool providers lots of money, but ultimately, it doesn’t help leaders differentiate their services. For starters, most organisations are installing the same technology, which makes them more and more alike, and less able to be differentiated and competitive. However, the more significant issue is that way in which work is designed, organised and managed must change first. That change should be customer-led, not technology-led. This is where most organisations fall down. Applying technology to already ineffective work designs predictably lead to failure and lament, or at best, mediocre change. 

There will be people at the lower levels of the organisation who are aware of the risks of blindly following the crowd. They have likely seen the risks manifest elsewhere. However, if their leaders believe that transformation requires employing technology and rolling it out, they have limited authority to influence that decision. Instead, all they can do is raise their concerns and then hunker down and focus on the process of implementation.

Technology thinking is a reinforcing loop. This might be an unfamiliar term. A reinforcing loop is one in which an action produces a result which influences more of the same action thus resulting in growth or decline3. Employing technology as a silver bullet to cure all ills is not a new phenomenon. Yet, despite the evidence of repeated failure, the technology thinking paradigm is still assumed to be the one best way. This phenomenon has been described since people embarked on technology initiatives as a means to improve their organisations, for example, back in 1992, Clive Holtham4) wrote:

One of the problems in discussing how to make groups more effective, is that the information technology thinking driving it is rooted in traditional, but potentially or actually inappropriate, paradigms. 

Although written 30 years ago, the technology thinking paradigm still prevails.

There’s nothing wrong with technology, however, successful application requires different thinking. What is required is the application of a different philosophy, where high-value work is defined that sets the context for improvement, people are organised and enabled to do that work more effectively, and productive leadership practices are embedded. Technology can then be applied that compliments this more productive system of work. This approach enables organisations to build long-term, sustainable, nimble, and successful businesses that are designed to adapt.

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  1. Digital disruption will wipe out 40% of Fortune 500 firms in next 10 years, say c-suite execs, Ben Rossi, Information Age, 2017 

  2. Retiring Cisco CEO delivers dire prediction: 40% of companies will be dead in 10 years, Julie Bort, Tech Insider, 2015 

  3. Reinforcing Loop,, Gene Bellinger, 2004 

  4. Holtham, C. (1992), Improving the Performance of Workgroups through Information Technology (Cambridge: Lotus Development (UK) Ltd). McDonald, J. (1991) (Cambridge: Lotus Development (UK) Ltd